The Abecedaries (Isaiah 28)

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Illustration: The Abecedaries

An abecedary is a type of ancient inscription containing letters in a standard alphabetical order. Many such writings appear to be nothing more than the elementary exercises of school children. However, these documents still yield valuable information concerning the development and transmission of the alphabet. The earliest abecedaries were found at Ugarit and date to the fourteenth century B.C. The order of the letters preserved in these early documents follows the arrangement later adopted by the Hebrew, Greek, Latin and Arabic alphabets. Many have argued that the names of the letter, though not preserved in these inscriptions, must have developed simultaneously with the fixed alphabetic order by serving as a mnemonic device to aid in remembering the pattern. By analogy, modern Europeans use a rhyming song to learn their alphabet.

Parts of Isaiah 28:9-13 are difficult to interpret; verse 10 in particular looks like a series of nonsense rhymes. The NIV renders this as “Do and do, do and do, rule on rule, rule on rule; a little here, a little there“, but this translation is something of a guess. The translational difficulty in the Hebrew can perhaps be explained by the development of mnemonic tools such as rhyming for teaching children. The nonsensical Hebrew words that appear in this passage are probably consonants plus rhyming vowel sounds, simulating an elementary school lesson. Further evidence that the Israelites made use of the alphabet for memorization purposes can be found elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible. For example, Psalms 111 and 112 are acrostic poems that follow the order of the Hebrew alphabet.


 

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